Mark's bio

Teaching and Administering Distance Education Practices

"Distance education is no longer the great evil. Many DE techniques and strategies are used in more traditional learning environments. In fact, it is often said that the distance between a lecturer and a student is greater than the distance between teachers and students in DE environments. This is difficult to pull off as a teacher, and even more difficult from the administrative side. There are competing forces at work. Still, we're all on the same time, aren't we?"

Mark Walbert -
Pete Sands -
Judi Kirkpatrick -
Susan Lang -
Joel English -
Trish Harris -
Cynthia Jeney -

Mark Walbert – "Distance Learning: It's Not a Question of If but of How"

We are past the time when we could question whether or not to offer courses in a "distance learning" environment. Whether the distance between our campus and the student is covered by correspondence, interactive television, or the Web, we are and have been teaching students who are at a distance from our University. Changes in technology, in fact, are making it increasingly possible to do so in a way that reduces the interpersonal distances that text-only communication seems to present. Increasingly we can offer face-to-face interaction over the Internet using IP video, moving us away from the compressed video used with interactive TV classes. So the question is not "Do we offer distance learning courses?" but "How do we conduct distance learning courses well?"
          My training is in economics and, to an economist, technology is how you "get something done." I firmly advocate using any technology that can improve teaching and learning. For over a decade I have defended position taken by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education (The Fourth Revolution, 1972) that any technology applied to facilitate teaching and learning should be essential to the course in which it is applied and should allow the students to do something they couldn't do as well, or at all, without it. Teaching over the Web is simply another technology, technique, for promoting learning. I would put forth the argument that Colleges and Universities should direct their distance learning offerings to reach, via the Internet, those who are best served by distance learning, not just anyone with a computer and a modem. I argue further that the programs and courses that are offered "at a distance" should be chosen by the schools and departments that are feeling the competitive pressure from other such programs. Finally, as an economist I am keenly aware that incentives and rewards must be sufficient to cover the opportunity cost of faculty who devote more of their professional efforts to distance learning, especially the development of online course materials, and recognition of the fact that it is not the case that once it's online one is essentially finished with the course.
          Illinois State is developing a plan for distance learning that touches on some of these issues. This plan contains several recommendations, including the following.

  • Although national, regional, and local distance education offerings are rapidly growing, Illinois State will remain primarily a residential campus providing students with "a small-college experience with large-university opportunities."
  • Distance education will provide a means to serve constituents who might not otherwise be able to take advantage of Illinois State's quality educational offerings.
  • Individual departments and colleges can best determine their distance education strategic objectives and audiences; departmental faculty can best determine curriculum and content of distance education course and programs.
  • Illinois State must provide sufficient faculty and student administrative and technical support to ensure successful, effective, and efficient distance education offerings; Illinois State must also ensure appropriate institutional image integrity and adherence to national accreditation guidelines.
It is my personal belief that the future of "distance learning" lies more in "hybrid" courses that meet for some time "on site" – to create that "small-college experience" – and the rest of the time "on-line." Reaching out across the Internet to students who would not otherwise have access to the specific courses or programs offered by Illinois State is a relevant use of this technology.
          But if one is going to go down this path then one must devote the proper resources to creating a quality learning experience for those "on-line" students. That means the University must support the best teachers in their learning to teach well over the Web. It means offering permanent support for training programs that help faculty reduce the time it takes to master the technology relevant to Web teaching in their discipline. It means codifying the importance of such a path in the annual evaluation of the faculty.
          Having said all this, I also encourage the on-line teaching community to adopt a "faith to doubt" in the universal viability of distance learning. One may start, perhaps with the faith that good teaching is good teaching regardless the specific technique employed, but maintain a healthy doubt that any specific use of technology will promote teaching and learning, and have great determination to assess the ability of that technology to promote learning. And share what you have learned with others.